Rodrigo Ortega Montes was barefoot and beaming, a hammer in one hand, a bucket full of clams and sea snails in the other.
"Very rich," he said in Spanish, meaning the snails.
We were alone on the beach. When I introduced myself, Ortega told me how he had left Mazatlan, worked in California for a few years, then found his way to a construction job here. He squinted south at the blue horizon, the knife-sharp outline of a rocky hill with the sun behind it, and raised his arms.
"All this," he said, "and no migra."
Whether you're coming from the north or south -- with or without immigration officials to consider -- life can be grand in this corner of Baja California. But it is getting more complicated.
San Felipe, about 350 miles south and slightly east of Los Angeles, was founded in 1916 or 1925 (depending on who's counting) as a fishing port. Once the paved road to the U.S. border went through in the early 1950s, American anglers and adventurers started coming as well. Now a sign puts the full-time population at 19,263, though the 2005 census places the number at 14,831.
Even with no commercial flights, the town gets as many as 250,000 American and Canadian visitors yearly, many of them snowbirds in RVs who park their vehicles in dozens of campgrounds known as campos.
During spring break season -- essentially, the month of March -- the city teems with college students eager to drink legally at age 18 and line up for foam parties. (If you have to ask, you're too old.) Off-road races such as the San Felipe 250 (March 14 and 15) come up now and again.
The rule of thumb: Californians come from spring through fall, and Canadians descend in winter. And every day the sun rises over the sea and sets over the mountains.
Growth amid the rustic
Besides fishing, clamming, drinking and lounging, visitors roar through the desert on off-road vehicles of all kinds. For a day trip, many make the 55-mile paved drive to Puertecitos, a quirky American expat and retirement enclave with natural hot springs at the sea's edge.
At night, you can stroll past the row of semi-rustic restaurants and bars along the malecon. At any hour, you're likely to catch fishermen fussing with their boats. On beaches at the edge of town, you see hundreds of four-posted huts -- parking ports waiting for RVs.
These details will be familiar to any Californian who has made a few Baja road trips. So what's different now?
For miles to the north and south, hundreds of vacation homes and condos have gone up. Construction surged in the '90s and slowed more recently, leaving the city poised between rapid growth and persistent rusticity.
Two unfinished projects look as though they'll surpass five stories, but otherwise, nearly every building in town is three stories or less. In other words, growth in San Felipe is so far a horizontal story, not a vertical one, and it seems to be happening at 20 mph, not 70. Which, given the quality of so many Baja roads, may be prudent.
Greeted by the gulf
Arriving by road -- yes, it's paved -- you reach San Felipe by miles of stark borderlands driving (with a military checkpoint or two along the way). To your right rise the serrated foothills of Baja's Sierra San Pedro Martir range, with the usual Baja stubble of ocotillo, mesquite and scattered cardon cactus. On the left it's all flat. And don't pull over -- there's no shoulder and you could end up sinking into the sand.
This was once a big wetlands, the estuary of the Colorado River. Now that there's nearly nothing left of the Colorado by the time it gets here, the old delta has devolved into a dead zone, too salty even for cactus.
Rolling beyond that dead zone and into San Felipe, you sidle up to the Gulf of California, a.k.a. the Sea of Cortes. You pass a dozen or more beachfront campgrounds for RV people and owners of rustic vacation homes. The rocky slopes of 955-foot Cerro el Machorro rise at the northern end of the town and bay, and white sandy beaches march south into the distance.
Depending on when you look, the beach might seem a bit broad or downright eerie -- the retreating sea can lay bare as much as a quarter-mile of damp sand.
On a low hill in the shadow of Cerro el Machorro, the Catholic faithful have put up a blue and white shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a spot that offers the best view in town and is visible to boats for miles around. The two rowdiest spring-break party bars, Rockodile and the Beachcomber, stand along the malecon, the three-block street and promenade that fronts the beach.
At the northern end of the malecon, beyond the metal footbridge that leads to the Guadalupe shrine, stand the Lighthouse restaurant and a hulking ship-shaped discotheque called the Boom Boom Room, which was closed during my visit.
Look left as you cross the foot bridge and you behold the town's derelict old shipworks, now a wet graveyard for several vessels that will never float again. Look right and you get a great panorama of beach and sea, including dozens of fishing boats, whose owners typically slouch nearby, mending nets or haunting the sidewalk and whispering to strangers like me.
"Hey, mister. You like fishing?"
I think I heard that question five times in 48 hours. But one day soon -- and really, how could anybody be looking forward to that day? -- the real-estate-hawkers are going to outnumber the fishing pitchmen.
Welcoming the well-heeled
Among the real-estate enterprises, the 800-pound gorilla is El Dorado Ranch, which covers about 35,000 acres just north of the city and is connected to at least three hotels and one restaurant in town as well. Aiming to attract more upscale customers -- and steal tourists from Puerto Penasco -- El Dorado's Denver-based owners say on their website that their project provides "a unique alternative" for Arizonans "weary" of Penasco's "overcrowded beaches, high prices and increasing commercialism."
More than 1,500 El Dorado homes and condos are done or under construction, and 5,500 or more lots have been sold. In 2005, the El Dorado people unveiled the area's first 18-hole golf course, Caras de Mexico ($70 to $85 a round for nonresidents), which is to be neighbored by 300 condos (most of which are finished, 35 of which can be rented by the night) and more than 750 homesites. A hotel is planned too, but construction has not yet begun.
Meanwhile, with most of its visitors in RVs, condos or vacation homes, San Felipe sustains a strange and perplexing batch of hotels.
Beachfront El Cortez, built in 1959, is well-kept but stopped taking credit cards late in 2007. The Costa Azul stands in a prime spot at the end of the malecon, but its rooms are marred by flaking paint, and the staff doesn't bother to open the restaurant or heat the pool off-season. The Hotel San Felipe Marina Resort & Spa, south of town, has 55 rooms within steps of the beach -- but no marina or spa.
The selection will improve with the opening of the Club Habana -- formerly known as the Hotel Misiones, next door to the Hotel Playa Club -- but it's unclear whether the rehabilitators will meet their target of opening later this year.
Then again, if you're a believer in deadlines, this probably isn't the place for you anyway. I fell in step with San Felipe when I stopped consulting my watch and meandered from meal to beach to car to meal to beach to bed, time-traveling between old and new.
For instance: Next to Pete's Camp el Paraiso, a campground, restaurant and rustic vacation-home enclave that dates back more than 40 years, I found the Caras de Mexico golf course and its neighboring condos. As a nod to Mexican culture, the course, which features a special salt-tolerant grass, includes a bronze statue of a Mexican hero at every hole. The first hole is Montezuma. The 16th is Frida Kahlo. She's a par 5.
For breakfast one day, I had a $5.75 eggs Benedict at Pavilion, the fancy restaurant neighboring the golf course. For dinner one night I had grilled shrimp for $11 on the upstairs patio of Conchita's, gazing out at the sea and guessing whether the fake marlin that dangled from a wire above the family at the best table posed a safety risk.
Eventually I stopped worrying and had another beer. That, for now, is the San Felipe way.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Planning a trip to San Felipe
THE BEST WAY
There is no commercial airline service to San Felipe. From Los Angeles, it's about 350 miles by way of Interstate 10, California 86 and California 111, Calexico, Mexicali and Mexico's Highway 5.
From the highway, Calzada Chetumal is the main street that takes you through the heart of San Felipe (and two traffic circles) to its three-block beachfront promenade, the malecon.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico) and the local number. (Do not apply this calling convention to toll-free numbers.)
WHERE TO STAY
Unless noted otherwise, all rates quoted here include the local 12% lodging tax, and all the hotels and condos listed have air conditioning.
Hotel el Cortez, Avenida Mar de Cortez; (686) 577-1055. Beachfront slightly south of town, dates to 1959 and includes bar, restaurant, unheated pool; No credit cards accepted. 109 rooms. Doubles from $80 (queen bed) to $170 (bungalow with kitchenette).
Costa Azul Hotel, 247 Avenida Mar de Cortez; (686) 577-1548. Beachfront with 140 rooms, restaurant (in season), unheated pool, a little rough around the edges. Rates $70 to $82 February through October, about 15% less from November through January.
San Felipe Marina Resort & Spa, Kilometer 4.5 Carretera San Felipe-Aeropuerto; (800) 291-5397 or (686) 577-1569, www.sanfelipemarina .net. Oceanfront, 55 units, indoor and outdoor pools, restaurant, bar, gym, sauna, tennis courts. Rates $128 (standard room) to $403 (two-bedroom suite with kitchenette).
Hotel Playa Club San Felipe, 148 Mision de Loreto; (800) 967-0005 or (686) 577-1280. Low-key, well-maintained, family-friendly beachfront rooms. Eight rooms and 24 suites. No bar or restaurant but a big pool. Rates $101 (standard room) to $180 (suite with kitchenette).
Hacienda de la Langosta Roja, a.k.a. the Red Lobster Hotel, 125 Calzada Chetumal; (800) 967-0005 or (686) 577-0483, www.sanfelipelodging .com. Thirty-nine rooms, a few blocks from the beach, above a fancy Italian restaurant. Rate $85, plus tax.
El Dorado Ranch, Kilometer 176.5 on Highway 5; (800) 404-2599 or (877) 787-2624, www.eldoradoranch.com. Includes the Ventana del Mar condos ( 455-0119, www.laventana delmar.com) and Caras de Mexico golf course seven miles north of town. Inventory includes 72 houses and 35 condos. House rates run $80 to $400, condos $150 to $275.
Other home and condo rentals are available through sites such as www.lascasitas.com.mx and www.sanfeliperentals.com.
WHERE TO EAT
San Felipe restaurants generally don't list phone numbers, because they don't bother with reservations.
Conchita's, along the malecon. Lots of locals eat here. Prices up to $10 (for 12 oysters).
Baja Mar Restaurant & Taco Factory, 101B Calzada Chetumal, along the malecon. Tasty tacos. Prices up to $18.
Baja Java Gourmet Coffee, upstairs at Chetumal and Mar de Cortez, www.blueroadrunner.com/Baja java). Popular breakfast venue. Prices up to $6.
Pavilion, Kilometer 176.5 on Highway 5. The fancy-dining venue of the Ventana del Mar condos. Breakfast and lunch daily. Dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. Dinner prices up to $16.50, breakfasts up to $6., lunches up to $8.75 . If you want a closer view of the ocean, consider Juanito's Cantina in the same development.
TO LEARN MORE
Instituto de Informatica, www.sanfelipe.com.mx, a helpful website; and www.blueroad runner.com, which features business listings and history.
To see more of San Felipe, go to latimes.com/sanfelipe.